4:00 P.M., April 1, 1999
The World's Most Amazing Sound System
by The Rev. George E. Riday Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
We are so accustomed to speaking and being spoken to that we are likely to take for
granted the world's most amazing sound system - human speech. At one point in our
development we were unable to make any sense out of the myriad, strange sounds that we
heard. And yet our civilization is what it is because we learned to make sense out of what
was once gibberish. The magnitude of the marvel of speech!!!
The time element and the writer's limitations make necessary, cursory treatment of the
subject. A brief comment on the origin of language is given along with comments concerning
how we human beings learn to speak. There is a statement about the relationship between
cognition and language. Research indicates that we have a built-in mechanism that assists
us in learning fundamental grammatical "rules."
There are references to redundancies and other facets of our speech that amuse as well
as inform. Many authorities enhance the paper with delightful interjections. There is an
interesting portion commenting on the making of The Oxford English Dictionary' especially
the role of an American surgeon's contributions while he was an inmate in an institution
for the criminally insane in England.
The conclusion cites the role of language in the development of religion.
Key Words: language, speech, communication,
cognition, intelligence, word-games, religion, Japanese,sounds.
George E. Riday, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1912. Following graduation from
Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, he served churches in New
Jersey. During World War IT he served as chaplain in the United States Army for five
years. Three years were spent in the North African and European Theatres of Operation.
Following the war he received his master's degree from Wayne State University and his
Ph.D., from the University of Michigan.
He has taught at what is now, American Baptist Seminary of the West, San Bernardino
Valley College and has been in private practice in psychology. He served on the psychology
staff of Patton State Hospital and has been an adjunct professor at local colleges and
universities. During a sabbatical leave he served as professor of psychology on the
floating university, World Campus Afloat. He is married to the former, Phyllis C. Hewson.
They have four children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren..
The World's Most Amazing Sound System
by The Rev. George E. Riday Ph.D.
Perhaps the average person reading this title is likely to think that there will be a
description of the most recent state-of-the-art electronic system. This is a reasonable
conclusion. However, the most amazing sound system to me is the human language. When we
consider the fact that we can communicate to our fellow human beings a set of
instructions, what we are feeling, a request, a humorous story, an expression of sympathy,
a particular philosophical viewpoint we hold and a myriad of other expressions simply by
uttering a variety of sounds-the accomplishment is phenomenal.
Practically everyone of us takes the gift of language for granted. We hear speech every
day of our lives. Unless our ability to speak is impaired we talk every day. Familiarity
surely does not breed contempt for the gift of language but it may cause us to negate the
marvel of it. Isn't what is taking place at this moment remarkable? I am making sounds,
all kinds of different sounds, and you are able to translate those noises into some
semblance of the meaning I wish to convey. In a non-English-speaking country this paper
could be translated into a series of sounds familiar to the audience but meaningless to
most of us Americans. One more fascinating aspect of this most amazing sound system.
The subject of language is so vast I trust you will understand that my limited
knowledge and the time restriction force me to be selective in my presentation. Very
selfishly I have chosen those aspects of language with which I feel most comfortable.
If you are informed a little and somewhat entertained by this paper I will have
fulfilled my intention. There may be occasional references to other languages but we will
deal in the main with English.
When and where did language begin? Most authorities agree that a reliable answer is not
available. There are a number of theories that attempt an answer. As ridiculous as they
sound there are those who believe them to be better explanations than none. Here they are:
the Bow-Wow theory. the Ding-Dong theory, the Pooh-Pooh theory, the Yo-He-Ho theory. These
theories are based upon the supposition that languages stem from spontaneous expressions
of alarm, pain, joy etc., or that they somehow imitate (onomatopoeic) sounds in the
natural world. Bow-Wow, of course, refers to dogs. The Welch word for owl is gwdihw,
pronounced, "goody-hoo", imitating the sound of an owl. There is a slight
tendency to cluster words around certain sounds. For example, there are many words
pertaining to wetness: splash spill, spray, spatter , spigot, spit sprinkle and splatter.
And we have a large number of fl words associated with movement: flap. flail, flicker,
flounce, flee, flow, flop.
Much of what we know, or assume we know, about the roots of speech come from observing
young children learning to speak. For many years students of language formation believed
that language was something we had to learn from scratch. Just as we learned the names of
the fifty states or the multiplication table. We had to learn the "rules" of
speech. The assumption was that our minds are a blank slate, a tabula rasa, upon which
were written the rules we had to learn. But then other authorities, notably Noam Chomsky
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began to challenge this viewpoint. He argued
that some structural facets of language - the ground rules of speech must be inborn This
is not to suggest that if you had been born and reared among wolves that you would have
learned English spontaneously. It does offer the likelihood that we are born with an
instinctive sense of how language works, in general. There are a number of reasons for
this assumption. For one thing we appear to have an innate appreciation of language. By
the end of the first month of life infants show a preference for speech-like sounds over
all others. It doesn't matter what language it is. To a baby no language is any easier or
more difficult than any other. All languages are learned at about the same pace,
regardless of how irregular or wildly inflected they may be. Children seem to be
programmed to learn language in about the same manner that they learn to walk. According
to Bill Bryson, the American journalist who lives in England, children have such a
remarkable facility for language that they can effortlessly learn two structurally
different languages simultaneously - if, for instance , their mother is Chinese and their
father American - without displaying the slightest signs of distress or confusion.
In the June 15, 1998 issue of U.S. News & World Report, Shannon Brownlee has an
article about the way in which babies learn to talk. She begins with a description of a
study done at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Inside a darkened booth, 18-month-old
Karly Horn sits on her mother Terry's lap. Karly turns her head each time she listen to a
woman's recorded voice coming from one side of the booth or the other "At the bakery,
bakers will be baking bread," says the voice. Karly turns to her left and listens,
her face intent. "On Tuesday morning, the people have going to work," says the
voice. Karly turns her head away even before the statement is finished. The lights come on
as graduate student Ruth Tincoff opens the door to the booth. "Nice work," she
says to Karly.
Karly and her mother are taking part in an experiment conducted by psycholinguist Peter
Jusczyk, who has spent 25 years probing the linguistic skills of children who have not yet
begun to talk. Like most toddlers her age, Karly can utter a few dozen words at most and
can string together the occasional two-word sentences like," More juice" and
"Up, Mommy." Yet as Jusczyk and his colleagues have found, she can already
recognize that a sentence like "the people have going to work" does not sound
right. By 18 months of age, most toddlers have somehow learned the rule requiring that any
verb ending in -ing must be preceded by the verb to be. Apparently the need for the rule
is inherent even though the rule itself is unknown. "If you had asked me 10 years ago
if kids this young could do this, says Jusczyk, I would have said that's crazy."
Linguists these days are thinking seriously about a lot of ideas they once considered
crazy. Recent findings are reshaping the prevailing model of how children acquire
language.. The dominant theory, put forth by the well-known Noam Chomsky, has been that
children cannot possibly learn the full rules and structure of languages strictly by
imitating what they hear. Instead, nature gives children a head start, wiring them from
birth with the ability to acquire their parents native tongue by fitting into what they
hear a pre-existing template for the basic structure shared by all languages.
"Language," writes Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Steven Pinker,
"is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains." As early as the
1950's Chomsky hypothesized that children are endowed from birth with "universal
grammar," the fundamental rules that are common to all languages, and the ability to
apply these rules to the raw material of the speech they hear - without awareness of their
Geneticists and linguists recently have begun to challenge the common-sense assumption
that intelligence and language are inextricably linked. Research on a rare genetic
disorder called Williams syndrome is shedding some new light on the relationship between
language and intellect. This genetic condition can seriously impair cognition while
leaving language nearly intact. A further word about Williams syndrome -Kristen Aerts is
only 9 years old but she can work a room like a seasoned politician. She marches into the
lab of a cognitive neuroscientist Ursula Bellugi, at the Salk Institute for Biological
Studies in La Jolla, California and greets her with a cheery, "Good morning, Dr.
Bellugi. How are you today?" The youngster smiles at a visitor and says, "My
name is Kristen. What's yours?" She looks people in the eyes when she speaks and asks
questions - social skills that many adults never seem to master much less a third grader.
Yet for all her poise, Kristen has an IQ of about 79. She cannot write her address, she
has trouble tying her shoelaces, drawing a simple picture of a bicycle, and subtracting 2
from 4 and she may never be able to live independently. Kristen has Williams syndrome.
Those persons with this disorder have diminished intellectual capacities and heart
problems, and age prematurely yet they show outgoing personalities and a flair for
language. "What makes Williams syndrome so fascinating," says Dr. Bellugi,
"is that it shows the domains of cognition and language are quite separate."
The subject of language and its proper usage is of enough interest to many readers that
numerous volumes are written on the subject and newspapers carry syndicated columns which
are written by such language experts as William Safire, James J. Kilpatrick, Richard
Lederer Bill Bryson, Charles Earle Funk and Willard Espy who, if I am not in error,
attended the University of Redlands. These and other authors have some delightful and
informative material on language from a variety of viewpoints. It is both revealing and
refreshing to read the many questions people have concerning proper English usage and to
realize the entertainment value our language provides.
In his book, The Miracle of Language, Richard Lederer with tongue in cheek
writes, "I am surrounded by an army of recurrent, repetitive redundancies. In fact, I
am completely surrounded. Even more than that, I am completely surrounded on all sides.
These repeated redundancies are in close proximity to my immediate vicinity which is a lot
worse than their being in distant proximity in a vicinity far away." He turned on his
TV set and learned that "at 10:00 a.m. in the morning" a man has been found
"fatally slain," "leaving no living survivors," that three convicts
"have successfully escaped.(how else does one escape?) He also heard that a track
star has just set a new "record," a feat much more newsworthy than setting an
old record. Have you ever heard someone say, "At this point in time
it possible to refer to a particular day or period on the calendar without its being
within the realm of time? By the way, have you ever had the thrill of creating a new
innovation? I hope so, the old innovations are far less interesting. Has the daily mail
ever brought you the exciting news that a "free" gift is enclosed. Take
advantage of it immediately for it is much better than a gift that you have to pay for.
Incidentally, I was surprised to read in Language in Thought and Action by the
renowned semanticist, S.I. Hayakawa, the comment that language is a "free" gift.
Lederer reminds us that redundancies are the junk food of our language. Alas and alack,
when we gorge on the empty calories of pleonasms (the technical name for redundancies), we
accumulate adipose tissue in the nooks and crannies of our linguistic waistline in dribs
and drabs and bits and pieces - and he challenges us to tell him the differences between
alas and alack, a nook and a cranny, a drib and a drab, and a bit and a piece. Rather than
aiding and abetting these fattening snack-size doublets, let us find the ways and means to
oppose them with all our vim and vigor and might and mien (I noticed that the renown
Richard Lederer spelled the word "mien" m-a-n-e. Even the experts are not always
right! He goes on to say that "lo and behold, perhaps one day they will be over and
done with and we shall be clear and free of them."
Can you believe that one word can change the world? When Pepsi Cola tried to translate
the slogan "Come alive with the Pepsi generation" into Chinese and German, the
effort was not what was intended. In Chinese the message came out" Pepsi brings back
your dead ancestors," in German as "Come out of the grave with Pepsi."
These errors are humorous but not disastrous. Not so during WWII which was extended by a
deadly three weeks because of a single error in translation.
Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, and Japanese resistance on the island of Okinawa
ended seven weeks later. On July 26, 1945, Churchill, Truman, and Stalin issued the
Potsdam Declaration: Japan had to surrender unconditionally or accept the consequences.
The Japanese Cabinet seemed to favor a settlement but had to overcome two major
obstacles to compliance - the tenacity of the Japanese generals and the pride of the
citizens of Japan. Needing time, the imperial Cabinet issued a statement explaining that
they were giving the peace offer mokusatsu.
Mokusatsu can mean either "We are considering it" or "We are
ignoring it." Most Japanese understood that the reply to the surrender ultimatum
contained the first meaning, but there was one notable exception. The man who prepared the
English language translation of the statement for the Domei news agency used
"ignore" in the broadcast monitored by the English-speaking press. To lose face
by retracting the news release was unthinkable to the proud Japanese. They let the
Believing that their proposal had been ignored or rejected and unaware that the
Japanese were still considering the ultimatum, the Allies proceeded to open the atomic
age. On July 28,1945, American newspapers printed stories reporting that the Japanese had
ignored the peace offer, and on August 6 President Harry Truman ordered an atomic bomb
dropped on Hiroshima. A new era in human history was irretrievably begun. In the 20 days
that followed the confusion about mokusatsu more than 150,000 men, women, and children
were annihilated because of the misunderstanding of just one word.
There are other idiosyncrasies related to language that are worthy of mention. What
about our English language and its occasional bias? Since language is a window through
which we look at our world, a growing number of persons have begun to wonder if our window
on reality has a glass that distorts the view. If language reflects culture and also
influences culture, could it be that the window is marred by cracks,
blind spots, smudges and filters? Is our language prejudiced? Does it treat the
left-handed in our society in an unfair fashion? What do the following sentences say about
being left-handed? Or being right handed?
- I believe you are right about this issue.
- Her left hand doesn't know what her right hand is doing.
- Rogers is the boss's right-hand man.
- The FBI has uncovered a sinister plot.
- When it comes to grammar, I feel out in left field.
- That surely was a left-hand compliment.
Such statements indicate that right in English often suggests correctness,
rectitude and importance. Being on the right or the right-hand means being in the favored
spot. Has anyone ever had a left-hand man? What about the connotations of the word
"black?" Under black in The Random House Dictionary of the English
Language (1987) we find, among other meanings: gloomy, pessimistic, dismal. A black
outlook: deliberately harmful; inexcusable: a black lie: boding ill,
hostile, threatening. His black heart has concocted yet another black deed. A
black mark on one's record. In contrast, the same unabridged dictionary tells us that
white suggests auspicious or fortunate; morally pure. innocent; without malice; harmless.
But what can you expect from a language in which white pastry is called angel food and
dark pastry devil's food cake?
We seem to forget the fact that women make up the majority of the population of almost
every country in the world. Yet concern has been mounting that the English language
stigmatizes women as an inferior group of human beings, undermines their self-images and
limits their perceptions of their proper roles in society. In each of the following pairs
which term carries the greater respect; bachelor-spinster, master-mistress, sir-madam,
poet-poetess, major-majorette, governor-governess? The first word in each case carries
more prestige than the second. Spinster began life meaning simply "a woman
who spins." Today spinster suggests a rejected, dried-up old maid. What about master
and mistress? Have you made a purchase with a Mistresscard? Feminist
Gloria Steinem has asked how a man would feel if he were graduated with a "mistress
of arts" or a "mistress of science " degree? Incidentally, if a king rules
over a kingdom what does a queen rule over?
As we reflect on the next aspect of language, I realize that thus far my paper could
well be described as hodge-podge. But, thanks to the penchant of the English language to
borrow words from other languages I choose to say that my effort is a
"potpourri," which , strictly speaking is a mixture of dried flower petals, but
also means a pleasant mixture, a miscellaneous collection, a medley, even a hodge-podge.
So I'll continue with my euphonious "potpourri."
We are familiar with the fact that words are the basic stuff from which many games and
clever constructions come. We know about crossword puzzles, anagrams, acrostics, acronyms,
scrabble, puns, etc.. Did you know that Willard Espy has written a 279-page book with the
title, The Game of Words? Many other writers have also entertained their readers
with the delights of wordplay. Let's look at some of these illustrations. A young English
writer by the name of Gyles Brandreth, a former Oxford scholar, has created a lipogram,
which is the writing or rewriting of a passage without ever using, even one time, a
particular letter. Brandreth rewrote Hamlet's well-known soliloquy excluding the letter
i.. Here is how it turned out:
"To be, or not to be; that's the query: Whether you would be nobler to suffer
mentally The stones and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms to oppose a sea of
troubles, And through combat end them? To pass on, to sleep, No more
? And so it goes
on for five whole acts until Hamlet expires uttering his deathless line: "The rest be
Another language trick is the palindrome - a word or sentence that reads the same
backward and forward. "Madam, I'm Adam" is one of the simple palindromes.
Another is "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama." How about this one. "Are we
not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?" There are some palindromes that
contain hundreds of words.
The delights found in The Devil's Dictionary complied by the sharp-witted
Ambrose Bierce present more evidence of the joy of lex This astute lexicographer decided
that he was not always in agreement with the definitions given in the standard
dictionaries so he wrote his own. Here are a few samples of his definitions: Bacchus. A
convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk. Bigot. One who
is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain. Dentist. A
prestidigitator who, putting metal in your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
Marriage. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and
two slaves, making in all two. Pray. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on
behalf of a single petitioner who is confessedly unworthy. Saint. A dead sinner revised
Slogans and some graffiti illustrate the punch and tickle that our amazing sound system
offers. Here are some. Save water-bathe with a friend. I am a mistake - legalize abortion.
Drive defensively - buy a tank. Help a nun kick the habit. Don't hate yourself in the
morning - sleep 'til noon. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, Fight poverty the American
way - get a job.
Language can be funny, sad, noble trashy, refined and any number of other adjectives
you can think of to describe it. If we want to know the meaning of the word dawn we can go
to the dictionary and be informed that it means the beginning of daylight in the morning;
daybreak. Ask the black poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar to define or describe the word
"dawn" and he will reply, "An angel robed in spotless white bent down to
kiss the sleeping night. Night woke to blush, the sprite was gone. Men saw the blush and
called it dawn." Not very scientific, actually not a definition but what the
lexicographer does for the mind the poet does for the soul. To complement our humanness we
Reference to lexicographers suggests the relevance of mentioning The Oxford English
Dictionary. This monumental work, totaling 424,825 entries, was published from 1933
onwards, with four supplements issued from 1972. The first editor of the dictionary was
James Murray (1837-1915). He was the son of a village tailor from Hawick, Scotland. At the
age of 14 Murray dropped out of school. This self-educated young man was a teacher and
bank clerk before becoming a lexicographer. In the back garden of his house in Oxford he
built a structure which was his Scriptorium. Here most of his laborious editing took
place. More than half of the first edition Murray did by himself . The initial installment
was published in 1884. It contained the letters A through ANT, 352 pages, price about 62
and a half pence today. It took 44 years to complete the work, in 125 installments - four
times longer than had been expected.
Strange as it sounds, there is a recent book published under the title, The
Professor and the Madman Believe it or not, the book is about the making of The
Oxford English Dictionary. James Murray had many assistants joining him in the
massive task . One of them, an American surgeon who served in the Civil War, contributed
much to the dictionary. His contributions were the result of his research done in an
English asylum for the criminally insane where the surgeon was not on the medical staff
but an inmate for many, many years. The author of this unusual story is Simon Winchester.
I recently received a copy of a book with a title that attracted my attention. It is The
Formicators or Words That Bug Me. Even my computer questioned the
not-often-used-word. Whether it considered it indecent or misspelled, I'm not sure. But
Fritz Bromberger, the husband of the author, assured me that the word is a respectable and
proper or his wife, Corrine, would not have used it. The word comes from the Latin, formica,
which means "ant." There is a colorless acid: formic acid, a member of the same
buggy family which is extremely irritating to the skin. Since her book is a compilation of
words that "bug" her, the title is most appropriate. An added feature of the
book is that the cover design was cleverly created by our own Dale Bauer. The book is an
uncluttered reference to the spelling and use of troublesome words whose meanings you
already know. Homophones (words having the same speech sound but are not spelled the same)
are a bugbear for computer spellcheckers, and a ten-second check in Corrine's book can be
most assuring. She lists more than 200 words that violate the I before E, except after C
rule. She also includes more than 100 irregular verbs and their unpredictable principal
parts. I trust that after learning of the practical value of this book that you will be
itching to get a copy soon.
It is inconceivable to most persons that we could have any sort of religious experience
without language. Each of the world's great religions depends upon language for its very
life. Each has a book that tells its story and instructs its followers. The
Judeo-Christian faith with which we have more familiarity than any other, and about which
my comments are made, accepts the Bible as the inspired guidebook of its religious faith
and practice. It is reverently referred to as the Word of God. There are various
interpretations of its content; nonetheless, it is considered a collection of sacred
writings. Language is a vital part of worship, utterances of praise, thanksgiving,
confession, sermons, teaching, etc.
Written and spoken language make possible the Magna Carta of our social order, The Ten
Commandments. Judaism highly exalts the word of the Lord. The spoken word played a vital
role in Creation. "And God said, 'Let there be light and there was light.'" Who
is not familiar with the expression,
."man shall not live by bread alone but by
every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Or, "Thy word is a lamp unto my
feet and a light unto my path." "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in
settings of silver." In the Christian portion of the Bible it is said of Jesus that
He spoke with authority. The admonition is given, "Be doers of the word and not
The Gospel of John begins with these words, "In the beginning was the Word, and
the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The concept of word is so powerful that
John's experience with Jesus prompted him to use the Greek word logos which is translated
"word." To the writer, the concept or definition of "word" as an
expression of an idea was so powerful that he describes Jesus as the "Word" or
God Incarnate. Church hymns pay tribute to the essential role of language in the
expression of one's faith. Hear these titles, "Wonderful Words of Life,"
"God Has Spoken By His Prophets," "I Love To Tell The Story."
"Lord, Speak To Me That I May Speak In Living Echoes Of Thy Tone." Surely faith
without works is dead but what would become of our faith if it were devoid of beautiful,
Wanting to express my sincere appreciation for our amazing sound system I conclude.
this presentation with the significant words of Professor S.I. Hayakawa
Language is the indispensable mechanism of human life - of life such
as ours that is molded, guided, enriched, and made possible by the accumulation of the
past experiences of members of our own species. Dogs and cats and chimpanzees do not, so
far as we can tell, increase their wisdom, their information, or their control of the
their environment from one generation to the next. But human beings do. The cultural
accomplishments of the ages, the invention of cooking, of weapons, of writing, of printing
of methods of building, of games and amusements, of means of transportation, and the
discoveries of all the arts and sciences come to us as gifts from the dead. These gifts
which none of us has done anything to earn, offer us not only the opportunity for a richer
life than our forbears enjoyed but also the opportunity to add to the sum total of human
achievement by our own contributions, however small they may be.
To be able to read and write , therefore, is to learn to profit by and take part in the
greatest of human achievements possible - namely, the pooling of our experiences in great
cooperative stores of knowledge, available (except where special privilege, censorship, or
suppression stand in the way) to all. From the warning cry of primitive man to the latest
newsflash or scientific monograph, language is social. Cultural and intellectual
cooperation is one of the great principles of human life.